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Saturday, February 9, 2002

A friend repeatedly tells me of the many people he personally knows who wouldn’t even miss if a lakh of rupees was stolen from them and whose life style wouldn’t change one bit if they should suddenly lose 10 lakhs or more. But these very people would wince if approached to support any worthy public cause or activity. People who brag about their financial successes clam-up and withdraw like snails when anyone suggests such contributions. But they are ever willing to fund monuments to their egos.

Happily there are several people whose genuine acts of generosity make life in our country

more bearable and hopeful. However such efforts are too few and far between. When problems are gargantuan the efforts should be gigantic.

Social capital is an alien concept in our country. All of us want to earn and earn, and acquire

assets, in the vain hope that large homes, accumulation of jewelry and huge bank balances

provide us security. We fortify our homes and live as prisoners. But the moment we step

out, mosquitoes swarm us, public defecation nauseates us, filth infects our lungs, traffic jams enervate us, and all pervasive corruption emasculates us. Where then is the escape?

We have to come to terms with the realities of human existence. We should realize that we all have to hang together. We cannot live in ivory towers. No matter how rich a person is, there is no individual salvation. We all share a common fate and collective destiny. Good schools, quality health care, pleasant neighbourhoods, green parks, good playgrounds, safe traffic, smooth roads, crime-free society and corruption-free government — only these can provide security. Armed with this security people can pursue their interests, be it business, philosophy, physics or painting. No matter what the government does, or does not do, we need to do a lot to make our life better. That’s what the philanthropists and civil society in the west understand.

In the west, several private foundations like Ford, Kellogg, Rockefeller, Mellon, Carnegie

promote public causes assiduously. Many hospitals, public parks and other public services

have been entirely privately funded. Even the recent effort of Bill Gates to help eradicate

preventable disease from the globe is a good illustration of the ease with which private wealth is utilized for public gain. Universities like Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Vanderbilt, Stanford,

McGill, Duke — all of which have been built through private charities — are the magnets

attracting our youngsters.

The privileged classes in India have not yet recognized that they owe much of their wealth

and success to society. Many of our rich are only too happy to fund an unworthy candidate

or a corrupt politician. How else would it be possible to spend Rs50 – 100 lakhs for an

Assembly election or Rs 20 lakhs for a municipal election? When a local warlord or mafia

boss makes demands, many are ready and willing to pay huge sums to save their skins. And of course ‘good causes’ like caste associations and temples always find money.

We, the urban middle and affluent classes, need to rethink our role in society. Private gain and public good are an inseparable whole. Many social goods that make life worth living can be created only by philanthropy. The state can at best play a supportive role creating a system of high reward for desirable behaviour and high risk for unacceptable conduct. Hyderabad, with its rich legacy should show the way to the rest of India.

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